Author Archive

Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Integrating Movement

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

When I first started writing this column, I suggested to you that there is a set of questions that can be applied across each of the whole child tenets to guide actions in schools. For the healthy tenet, for instance, they look like this:

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Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Professional Learning Communities

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and..." not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

"Lifelong learners" is at best a description of a healthy, dynamic culture; at worst, an overused cliché running rampant through school mission statements and professional resumes. It's one of those statements that folks use all the time, but no one really defines or assesses in a meaningful way (here we go with my word snobbery again!). So let's take it on. And this time, let's turn the lens on the grown-ups and figure out what and how they're learning these days.

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Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Parent and Family Engagement

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and..." not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

Fellow educators, let's set the record straight on a few things:

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Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Special Needs

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and..." not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

I am a word snob. I confess. I think words are powerful and beautiful and that word choice matters every day. My dad used to hand out buckets of praise at the dinner table when one of us used "SAT vocabulary." And I loved it.

But sometimes it's the simplest words that matter most. Like "each." As in, "each child, in each school, in each community deserves to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged." Too often in education and politics we use a word like "all" and actually mean "some." Or "most." Or "kids like mine." You can't get away with that with a beautiful little word like "each."

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Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: School Environments

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

That Maslow guy was pretty smart and I wonder if he was thinking about schools when he developed his hierarchy of needs. Have you ever taken a good look at them? (Those of you who have "healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged" in your minds as a daily mantra may notice some parallels!) He could probably write us a pretty good post for this month's theme on school environments.

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Molly McCloskey

What Does Whole Child Education Mean to Parents?

James P. Comer often describes his childhood by saying the adults of his community were "locked into a conspiracy to make certain that I grew up to be a responsible, contributing citizen." As founder of the acclaimed Comer School Development Program and an ASCD Whole Child Commissioner, Comer understands the importance of such a "conspiracy." Although schools, families, and communities almost always have similar goals for young people, they too often work in isolation and even at odds with one another. In contrast, how powerful it is when children are surrounded by adults united in commitment, purpose, and action!

With just such an alignment in mind, ASCD wanted to learn more about how parents understand the whole child approach to education. We commissioned KRC Research to conduct a study that included parent focus groups in Richmond, Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as a survey of 800 parents across the United States to identify their perceptions of what a whole child education is, how it is currently implemented in schools, and what barriers stand in the way of its implementation.

On Preparing Students for the Global Economy

"America is a melting pot. If you can't adapt, you hurt yourself." —Richmond Dad

"(Kids must be) resilient, adaptable, and creative. We are living in a tough economy and there is a bigger world out there." —Columbus Mom

It probably doesn't surprise anyone that our participants generally agree that each child, in each school, in each community must be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Of course they do—that's what all parents want for their children. However, as educators seek these same goals, we need to emphasize that supporting the whole child is a shared responsibility. Many focus group members were opposed to anything that they viewed as the school dictating to families what they should want for their kids. Focus group parents were further confused by what educators mean when we talk about community involvement. Parents want to know more about how we define community and what exactly we expect community members to do.

On Schools' Role in Ensuring Children are "Ready to Learn"

"When a parent isn't there, hopefully the school system will look to the community to find someone to help that kid who might need an extra boost." —Columbus Dad

"Medical care ... with schools, I'm not sure if that is their responsibility." —Columbus Mom

Parents strongly agree that although the school curriculum should continue to emphasize the fundamentals of reading and math, it should also provide more varied classes (such as economics, arts, and languages) so that each student becomes academically, socially, and emotionally well-rounded. Make no mistake—parents want their young people challenged deeply by rich academic content. They are concerned about international comparisons that suggest U.S. students lag behind students in some other countries. But they also want schools to help prepare students to be resilient, adaptable, and creative so that they may become independent thinkers and collaborative problem solvers.

On a Well-Rounded Curriculum

"You have to have testing standards, but you can have a variety of ways of getting at competence." —Richmond Dad

"Diverse ability can't be measured by standardized tests. Whole child education around personalized learning—social, emotional, well-rounded—what's not to like?" —Richmond Mom

"When you say academically, socially, and emotionally well-rounded, it's not just the academics, it's the whole package." —Columbus Mom

Perhaps most interesting among our survey results were the translations of educator language into more family-friendly terms. For instance, educators often talk about authentic tasks, whereas parents talk about real-world tasks; we use the term personalized, whereas parents felt more comfortable talking about meeting each child's unique needs; we say 21st century skills, whereas parents discuss being prepared for the future.

As educators engage parents in conversations about supporting the whole child, we may need to do less talking and more listening to make sure that we’re speaking the same language. (For information about the Whole Child Community Conversations Project, which allows local communities to explore how to work together to support the whole child, go to www.wholechildeducation.org/resources/comconversations.pdf.)

On the Need for Partnerships

"If people are working together, there's going to be a lot less wasted money." —Columbus Mom

In the end, as we seek to strengthen our partnership to ensure each child's success, parents and educators appear to have broad agreement on what we want. Instead of basing student success only on academic achievement or test scores, a whole child education provides additional skills to help students succeed in life and the workforce. It moves away from the expectation that schools are solely responsible for student achievement, to one in which schools, communities, and families work in partnership.

For more information on how both educators and parents can join the conspiracy, please visit www.wholechildeducation.org.

This article was reprinted with permission from ASCD's Educational Leadership, May 2011, an issue that explores how schools, families, and communities can work together to help students grow and succeed.

Molly McCloskey

On Superman, Oprah, and Dinner

I believe movies should be rated based on how many dinner conversations you get out of them. A top-notch film will provoke at least five conversations, the dregs produce zero, etc. And it's not always the quality of the film itself (or song, or photograph, or piece of art) but the impact it has on your thinking that makes the difference for me. It's about the questions the art provokes and the quality of conversation that can be had over the answers.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly for this career public educator, the movie Waiting for "Superman"—and the Oprah Winfrey Show episode dedicated to it on September 20—thinks it has the answers: fire teachers and start new charter schools. I haven't actually seen the film yet, so it goes a bit against my nature to talk about it, but I certainly can talk about what was shared during the Oprah episode, which I watched in fits and starts of agreement with some of the issues raised and abject anger at the inflammatory, blame-based, flat out inaccurate answers proposed.

So let's review:

1. The current public education system in the United States is deeply flawed and fails far too many young people, including the 30 percent who drop out all together and the 40 percent who require remedial coursework in college. — TRUE

2. Teachers play a critical role in the achievement and success of each child. — TRUE

3. Decisions about education in schools, school districts, and states and at the federal level too often prioritize adult wants over student needs. — TRUE

Therefore, according to Oprah and her guests we should:

4. Fire all the ineffective teachers (paraphrasing here: If we got rid of all the ineffective teachers, the United States would be number one in the world again). — Not so fast

  • There is little agreement regarding how to measure what effective teaching is beyond every parent's personal definition of what works for his or her child. My son and daughter had the same 1st grade teacher. She was absolutely perfect for one and absolutely wrong for the other because the children are different, not because she changed or was somehow less effective than the previous year.
  • Proponents of using student achievement data as a significant portion of teacher evaluation (including Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee) often fail to acknowledge that achievement tests were not designed for this purpose (and, in some cases, were not even designed to accurately measure student performance!).
  • No single staff member of any school is solely responsible for the achievement of any single student (or even class). Student achievement is influenced by interactions with many different adults—from counselors to librarians to custodians to principals to parent volunteers—throughout the school day and year and each has a profound impact on that student's achievement and success.

5. Fund and open more charter schools [so that kids don't have to attend those horrible public schools]. — Not so fast

  • Clear, consistent research indicates that charter schools are no more effective at raising student achievement (see flawed measurement system caveat above) than public schools. Some are great; some are lousy, just like public schools.
  • Bill Gates, one of the guests on Oprah's show, implied that quality public schools are few and far between and often the only viable option for any parent seeking quality for their child is a charter. That could be shocking to those folks who send their children to school districts like Arlington, Va.; Madison, Wisc.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; or Durham, N.C., each named by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 20 places to educate your child and each enrolling upward of 85 percent of students in public schools. And just this week, America's Promise Alliance, an ASCD Whole Child Partner, announced its 100 Best Communities for Young People, in part based on actions taken to prepare students to graduate from high school and succeed in college and a 21st century career.

This is the truth about education, not only in this country but also around the world: when the adults in a community (parents, policymakers, business owners, and school staff) work together and individually to ensure that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, each child succeeds. It is both that simple and that complex. Evaluate any fabulous charter or public school (large, small, urban, rural, racially and ethnically diverse or not, socioeconomically diverse or not), and I promise that you will find indicators and strategies under each of those categories that range from school-based health clinics to extended hours for academic, social, emotional, physical, and artistic support and enrichment to skilled instruction across multiple adult roles of a comprehensive, rich curriculum. Conversely, examine any failing school, be it a charter, public, or private, and you will find gaps in one or more of those areas.

It's not size that matters. It's not public or charter. It's not rich or poor. It's the conscious, conscientious, and continuous attention of all the adults of the community to ensure that each child in each school is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged that will meet the immediate needs of our children and provide for the long-term success of our democracy, economy, and society.

Days after the show now, I'm still talking about this episode, and Oprah has announced that Friday's show will be a follow-up (maybe including teachers?). Perhaps, in the end, that's really what matters here and what garners this episode, and maybe the film itself, a five-dinner rating. It's the conversations, the community-wide attention to the questions, and a national effort to find the answers that will finally change education for each of our children. Whether you agree with the solutions offered by the film and by Oprah's guests or not, I do hope you will take the time to talk about it!

Read an open letter to Oprah Winfrey about the episode written by ASCD Executive Director Gene R. Carter.

Molly McCloskey

Back to School Night

Today is the first day of school for young people in my neighborhood and as I passed a group of my middle school neighbors standing on the corner waiting for the bus, I started thinking about Back to School Night. I've been to plenty as a teacher, counselor, and parent myself and more often than not they are a rush of one way information from the school to the families who have squished themselves into chairs too small for adult bodies! At best there is a handout about what will happen in a certain class this year and a snapshot of teacher personality and style, but little real time for connection and certainly no time to identify shared goals and plans for a child's success.

So what would a Whole Child Back-to-School Night look like? My dream is of a cafeteria filled with round tables for actual conversations and chart paper galore. School staff members, parents, and guardians would be mixed together as adults committed to success for each child. Maybe there would be a conversation about teachers who made a difference in their own lives. A question might be asked and discussed along the lines of, "Think about your child at age 25. What characteristics would you like him/her to have? What qualities?" Perhaps, then, the discussion would turn to how those gathered for this night can work together to ensure that each child has a caring adult like that teacher who made a difference; a discussion of how those gathered can ensure that each child has the future every parent dreams about for his or her own child.

I wonder how a night like this would change the tone of the school year. I wonder how it would set the stage for a new kind of parent teacher conference. I wonder what impact it would have on family engagement.

Of course, that's just my dream. There are lots of ways this could be done, including using our whole child community conversation guides or a video like this one we found the other day from Starkville, MS:

What will you do on Back to School Night to ensure each child in your community is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged?

Molly McCloskey

Carl Walker-Hoover should be celebrating his birthday today

Carl Walker-Hoover should be celebrating his 12th birthday today. Instead his family and friends mourn because Carl took his own life last week in the face of constant bullying. The kids at Carl's school called him gay. They said the football, basketball and soccer playing Boy Scout acted "like a girl." They teased him and threatened him and, according to his mom, little to nothing was done to stop the behavior. 

Ironically, today is also when tens of thousands of high school and college students across the world will participate in the Day of Silence. Started in 1996 by students at the University of Virginia, and now officially sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the day asks students to take a vow of silence while at school to draw attention to exactly the kind of harassment that drove Carl, who did not identify as gay, to suicide.

Three years ago, ASCD, GLSEN, whole child partner AASA, BridgeBuilders, the First Amendment Center, and the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) endorsed a set of dialogue guidelines called Public Schools and Sexual Orientation. Perhaps an unlikely, or at least unanticipated, alliance between CEAI and GLSEN created a process for schools that is there to remind all that this is not an issue of faith or politics, but an issue of safety and support for all. If these guidelines are followed by schools and indeed communities across the world, there will be no need for the Day of Silence. 

While student activists are silent today, we urge the adults around them to speak out so that each child in each of our communities is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Carl should be celebrating today.

Molly McCloskey

Education is a civil right

"Of all the civil rights the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental." —W.E.B. Dubois

Imagine what would happen if we as a society actually believed that high-quality learning is a birthright of children, all children, rather than a privilege bestowed on those deemed worthy. Imagine what would happen if "free and appropriate" didn't have different meanings based on zip code, race, native language, ability, or socioeconomic status. Imagine if we didn't give lip service to the idea that "all children can learn" and instead understood that all children do learn through our actions and inactions every day. Imagine if we stopped arguing about who is to blame (the parents, the teachers, TV, society) and who is responsible for "education" and instead worked together to ensure real learning not just for some, but for all.

Our Whole Child partner the National Alliance of Black School Educators has named Thursday, February 12, 2009, "Education is a Civil Right" Participation Day. Imagine what would happen if everyone really participated.

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